Liner Notes: Battlin’ On: An Appreciation of Charlie Louvin 1927-2011
I have been struggling over the past several weeks to find words to heap upon the legacy of country music pioneer, Charlie Louvin, after his recent passing at 83. At a certain point, the music alone should speak for itself. Regardless, I will attempt to briefly add something, however meager, to the discourse surrounding his passing.
Charlie’s older brother Ira was killed on a lonely stretch of highway in Missouri in 1965. Charlie would continue to sing without him for another 45 years, nearly twice the time the Louvins spent singing gospel and country music and popularizing what would become known as “close harmony.” That says a lot about the fortitude of a man who rose to prominence as one half of a whole and had to suddenly go it alone. It is often painfully clear how prevalent Ira was in Charlie’s thoughts ever after, whether it was the heartbreaking ballad, “Ira,” on Louvin’s star-studded 2007 self-titled album or his recent admission that he always made a little room at center stage for the ghost of his brother, as he could almost feel Ira’s presence whenever he sang.
In the wake of Charlie’s death, much has been made of the figurative “blood” of the Louvin Brothers’ music (there was certainly enough literal blood, especially after Ira’s wife shot him three times in the back after he tried to strangle her). There was indeed something gritty and of the earth to their music that was not found in the saccharine music of many of their contemporaries. There was no doubt that the Louvins believed every word they sang. They yearned for “The Christian Life” even if more often than not they fell short of achieving it. They were no angels and I think listeners responded to their honesty and faith. If they couldn’t convince you that “Satan is Real,” I seriously doubt any preacher could.
I love the cover photo of Louvin’s final album, 2010’s “The Battles Rage On,” which captures the singer in a reflective moment, awash in smoke, as he puffs on his cigarette. This is very much the man I briefly met in 2009 when he played at the White Mule. Smoking plaintively, he was quick with a bawdy joke or some comment of disdain for the current Nashville music establishment. I asked if he had ever visited Columbia before. He replied, “I’ve been to Columbia. They almost killed my ass training on a sand dune at Fort Jackson before they shipped my ass to Korea in 1952.” When I mentioned a particular tune that he once covered by the Columbia-born Whispering Bill Anderson, Louvin made sure to call me out from the stage later and prove to this “young man” that he still knew it. Even at 82, the ornery Louvin still had something to prove.
Perhaps it was his prickly nature, but Louvin was never much at home in Nashville in the wake of his brother’s death. I honestly think this suited him just fine. They had no use for him and vice versa. Instead, he became a hero to such musical country rebels and rock and rollers like Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Bright Eyes. The list goes on and on.
Even when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he refused to stop touring and recording. Cancer would prove to be just one more battle in a life full of them. Returning to his roots in gospel, he closed his final album with a faithful take on the traditional “Down by the Riverside,” and finally, even if metaphorically by song, “puts down his burdens.” He puts down his sword and shield. For Louvin, the battle is finally over. I take comfort in that. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Charlie sure would have.